Tanya Van Court: Sowing the Seeds for a Brighter Future

tanya Sow

Tanya Van Court’s great idea, the one that would become not only her next business venture but her all-consuming passion, began simply enough. Her daughter, the older of her two children, was turning nine. When Van Court asked her what she would like for her birthday, her daughter replied that she wanted only two things: a bicycle and money to open an investment account. Van Court thought these were laudable goals, but she knew it wasn’t going to happen. She knew – we all know – that well-meaning relatives and party guests were likely to brings a few arts-and-craft kits, maybe a board game, and several versions of the fad-of-the-moment (rubber band bracelet, anyone?)

“Sometimes we walk down a path because it’s easy and comfortable. We may never meander, and consequently miss the new opportunity right in front of us. Change doesn’t have to be bad; change can be wonderful.”

Van Court saw a problem – a broken gift-giving system – and thought she could come up with a way to fix it. She had always taught her children the concept of Share/Save/Spend as a way to handle the money they earned. It occurred to her that she could set up an online system that would allow gift-givers – friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, anyone – to contribute directly toward these goals. More personal that simply writing a check, the gift giver would view a child’s profile and see their specific saving, spending and donating goals, and then decide how much and to what fund they’d like to contribute. “My daughter very much appreciates the gifts people give her,” Van Court says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean she actually uses them. I wanted to fix what I see as a broken economic exchange, and just as importantly, teach our kids the value of all this money that’s being spent.”

It happened that right around the time of her daughter’s birthday, Van Court had been trying to decide on her next career move. She received both her undergrad and master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University in the early 90’s and after trying out various engineering jobs she began working her way up the corporate ladder, first at CableVision, then at ESPN and later Nickelodeon, which suited her well because of her passion for children and education. From Nickelodeon she moved on to her most recent position at Discovery Education, where she helped launch the first digital textbooks. But Discovery Education had just gone through a major restructuring and Van Court found herself out of a job and trying to figure out her next career move.

Slide1Van Court had been planning to look for another corporate position, but the more she thought about her online gift giving idea the more she started to think that maybe she didn’t want to continue on the corporate ladder, after all. “I’m not one of these perennial entrepreneurs who’s always seeing opportunity wherever I look. I wasn’t looking for a business venture.”

Still, she wanted to explore the possibilities. She read a book called The Lean Start-Up, by Eric Ries, and followed the book’s recommendation to talk to as many people as possible. And when Van Court did that, she was floored by the positive feedback she got. “People said, ’Do this. Not today, not tomorrow, but yesterday.’ I have friends from every socio-economic background, and it didn’t matter if the person was a working-class mom, or a person with millions of dollars in the bank. They all felt that their kids had too much stuff, and that kids weren’t learning lessons about healthy financial habits. They thought that this could fix the problems that they were experiencing with gift giving – both in terms of their own kids and as far as buying presents for other kids.”

So in early 2015 Van Court made the decision not to return to the corporate world but instead to turn her idea into a reality. Naming her company Sow, she put together a website using all the feedback she had received. Her company was officially launched on December 3, 2015, one day before her son’s 6th birthday. Naturally, he has his own Sow account. Van Courts says, “An amazing proof of concept came when my son got $250 for his birthday towards meaningful goals, instead of receiving meaningless goods.”  The site has already signed up hundreds of young people and parents during its first month.

Van Court's daughter
Van Court’s daughter, Gabrielle

Financially, there have been and continue to be many sacrifices involved in not collecting a regular paycheck, but her family and friends have been extremely supportive, including her ex-husband (she refers to him as her Wasband) with whom she maintains a great relationship. Still, she cautions others to be careful. “You have to be realistic about your prospects. It’s likely you’re not going to go a couple of months without income, you could go a year or more.” Still, the financial sacrifices, which have not been insignificant, haven’t deterred her. “Sometimes we walk down a path because it’s easy and comfortable. We may never meander, and consequently miss the new opportunity right in front of us. Change doesn’t have to be bad; change can be wonderful.”

One big change for Van Court was learning to ask for help. “When you are working as an executive you have a lot of leverage and power to help other people, and you don’t need to ask for as much. When you are an entrepreneur that whole paradigm gets completely shifted upside down. You ask for help with everything.” One neighbor helped her get together a focus group of kids in the neighborhood. She reached out to another friend who had expertise in branding, another with marketing experience. A friend who is a graphic designer helped her develop a logo. “I literally reached out to almost every person I could think of in my network to help with something. I was so grateful, and continue to be so grateful, that people were so willing to help. I was almost in awe. I’d never asked for so much help in my life; it’s just not in my nature. It was a real growth and learning experience for me.”

Despite the hard work and financial sacrifices, Van Court, 43, has no regrets and remains passionate and upbeat about her mission. “I have not wavered from the belief that this is the right product and I am the right person to bring it to market. I believe that this has the potential to be a great business and have real social impact. It’s the opportunity to leave the world a little better. Where I sit today, there is nothing that I would rather be doing and nothing I could be more excited about.”

Van Court’s startup tips:
    • Be realistic about your prospects and about how long you will go without a paycheck (hint: probably longer than you think). Be clear on what sacrifices you will need to make.
    • Read the book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. Then talk to people and get as much feedback as you can.
    • Ask for help. You might be amazed at people’s willingness to help, but you have to ask.
    • Don’t minimize the power of networks, and know that you’ll need to grow and expand yours to succeed.
    • If you have the grit, the toughness, to endure the sacrifice, doing something you believe in is wonderful.

 

 

5 Start-Up Tips from Female Founders

NY Power Panel 2015

Virág Gulyás is Founder and Chief Editor and Shamim Shahzeb is Editor of MissCareerLess, a down-to-earth magazine dedicated to women of all ages. Its ultimate goal is to create a virtual storytelling platform and be the go-to empowerment site for women. MissCareerless’ uniqueness lies in its exceptionally multicultural content that proves that no matter where we are, we are in the same game together.  

NY Power Panel 2015
Virag and Shamim from MissCareerLess

This past month, we attended a Career 2.0 and Economic Ventures event in New York City bringing together five women entrepreneurs who shared their startup adventures and encouraged other women to follow their dream and launch their own businesses. Though they came from very different backgrounds, the Power Panel of female founders shared a common characteristic: they all started their journey to success with one idea that happened to be in line with their passion. Today, through determination, hard work, and skill, they are proud owners of their respective businesses:

  • Barbara Werner, owner of Musical Pairing Inc., a unique concept of pairing your meal with music.
  • Mary Molina, founder of the gluten- and GSA-free Lola Granola.
  • Deborah Hernan, founder and CEO of Ottilie and Lulu skincare products for tweens.
  • Sumeera Rasul, founder of Madesmith, an online artisanal product marketplace that shares stories of artisans and their products.
  • Marlo Scott, the founder and CEO of Sweet Revenge; a popular eatery at West Village, which pairs desserts and savory dishes with wine and beer.

Here are five key take-away messages they shared with the audience:

DO YOUR HOMEWORK – by Marlo Scott

NY Power Panel 2015
Marlo Scott

We have all been taught to do a basic business plan before venturing out to establish your own business. Identify the gap in the market, do your research qualitative or quantitative, and have a roadmap ready that will guide you in the initial stages of your entrepreneurial adventure. But write your business plan even if nobody will read it. You are doing it for yourself. And if after writing it, you still love your idea, then do it. The panelists agreed that to have a successful business plan, research is the most important step and, for that, you must think “outside the box.” For instance when Deborah began her qualitative research she went to different department stores and malls but couldn’t find her audience, tweens. So she went outside the box and did her research at a toy store and got the data (and chance) she was looking for. Thus, start by looking at places where you otherwise normally would not.

NEVER UNDERESTIMATE YOURSELF – by Deborah Hernan

NY Power Panel 2015This one is self-explanatory, but easier said than done. When you have setbacks on the path to your entrepreneurial venture, remember to believe in yourself and your capabilities. “People, who look really confident, might not be as confident as they appear.” There are days when you get up and feel everything is possible. But there are those days when you feel you are in the backseat. That is when you have to believe in yourself even more. Mary, echoed Deborah’s message by saying: “I faced quite many setbacks and troubles in getting the required certification for my granola.” There were days when she would simply cry after talking to people on the phone who refused to give information to her. But she persisted. She believed in herself, her capabilities and, most importantly, her product. This led to her granola bars being picked up by Whole Foods and her business steadily taking off.

JUST JUMP IN – by Sumeera Rasul

We have all been there: sitting at our desk, tired of the same 9-to-5 routine and our challenging (bad) bosses. We keep telling ourselves the NY Power Panel 2015calming mantra: “One day I will start my own business with that great idea that has been lurking in my head for a long time.” As reassuring as it sounds, our panelist warns us: that time will never come. So either you jump in or you never ever jump. (“It helps if you are laid off’”– added Marlo with great sense of irony). Do not wait for that “one-day’” to come, make today that day. And how do you motivate yourself to take that plunge? Change your mindset. To become an entrepreneur, you must start thinking like an entrepreneur. Once you have a business plan and the initial ground stone of your company or even just a business idea, start talking about it. Ger the word out. Tell everyone you know and even people you don’t know. You will be surprised how doing this might lead to the next step in your venture. If you get started, other people will lift you up!

SEEK OUT AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE MYRIAD OF RESOURCES – by Mary Molina

As it is so pervasive, we often overlook that we’ve got Google as our primary and free resource to use for research. It allows us to study about our business idea, to gain a sense of awareness from the market we are venturing into, as well as to get to know about competition – if any. Another great tool we have is reaching out to people who might be already in the market. You can ask them to link you with people who might be interested in your new business. The key here is to  actively build a network of people who can support you and could be valuable sources of information and help. At the same time, you have to be determined and confident about your idea. As Sumeera intervened: “If you want to know who your friends are, start a business.”

NY Power Panel 2015
Lisa from Career 2.0 (center) with Gwendy & Carrie from Economic Ventures

If you find yourself without any support to begin with, you can always reach out to different platforms. Think of SCORE, which brings together a group of retired entrepreneurs who offer guidance and resources to to-be-entrepreneurs or already established business owners who are retiring or selling out. Then there are organizations like the Tory Burch Foundation: Finance for Female Entrepreneurs, which provides economic support. Or Goldman Sachs that provides resources such as 10,000 Small Businesses and 10,000 Women, which help entrepreneurs and women business owners by providing them with the required education, capital, and support.

KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW AND THEN CAPITALIZE ON YOUR STRENGTHS – 11406790_470060686492234_6554088178124972224_nby Barbara Werner

The multifaceted Barbara is driven by curiosity and believes that everything we learn we will be able to use somewhere along our journey. But how do we know if something is really worth our time to dive in? “You know you more than anybody else do.” So know what you don’t know and commit to learning it! But also – and to establish your business – you need to know your strengths. You need to be able to line them up and build on them. Even the statement: “Well, I’ve been a mother for 15 years’”shows that you are patient, you’ve got great communication skills, and you have determinationOnce you established your strengths and know your business plan to the smallest details, collaborate with people and organizations, which have the strengths and skills that you or your company might be lacking. That is how you can start building up your team. Only by preparedness you will be able to anticipate the changes in the market and be ready to react to these changes in your business plans.

Stay posted for more Power Panels organized by Career 2.0 (coming to DC soon) and a follow-up event in NYC with Economic Ventures.

Nichole Montoya: “Nacho” Ordinary Payment System

Nichole Montoya and Molly DiCarlo at National PTA EventAccording to the Urban Dictionary, the go-to source for the definition of all terms hip and cool (or in our case, slang we hear our kids using) to “Cheddar Up” is “to gain money through legal or illegal means.” As in “Man, I gotta get my hustle on and cheddar-up.” No small irony then that two moms in Colorado, by way of the Iowa and Nebraska plains, should settle on Cheddar Up for the name of their venture, the latest and most innovative arrival to the stage of group payments.

“Every time she hears me explain that ‘cheddar’ is slang for money, my co-founder Molly can’t keep a straight face. There is just something about two moms, handing out cheese cubes and company flyers at a school carnival that doesn’t scream Jay-Z,” laughs Nichole Montoya. (more…)

One-on-One With Alicia Syrett, Angel Investor and Start-Up Advisor

squareAlicia Syrett is the Founder and CEO of Pantegrion Capital, an angel investment vehicle focused on seed and early stage investments. She serves on the Board of NY Angels as the Chairman of the Board of HeTexted and her past and present advisory board roles include Enerknol, iFunding, Cuipo, The Pitch Deck, Beauty Booked, Cissé Trading Co. and Willa. A recurring panelist on CNBC’s PowerPitch, Alicia was voted one of Wharton’s “40 Under 40” young alumni and has been featured on Fox, MSNBC, Inc, Associated Press, Huffington Post, and USA Today, among others. She mentors start-ups and students alike and is a member of Women Corporate Directors. 

(more…)

Carrie McIndoe: A Passion for Creating Opportunity

Carrie-McIndoe-head-shotCarrie McIndoe read a great quote once and, although she doesn’t know who said it or if she’s even quoting it right, it spoke profoundly to her: “‘Savor the time you spend with the people you love and on the parts of your life that matter the most, so much so that it makes you so happy you could dance in the street.’”

After a long career in strategic business planning and financing for start-ups, McIndoe is living those words as the founder of Economic Ventures, a not-for-profit dedicated to entrepreneurship. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons, many the hard way, and want to share these to help others transform their lives. I can’t imagine doing anything better.” (more…)

Danielle Tate: Savior of Brides Drowning in Marriage Red Tape

DanielleTate_0181-XLGetting married? Thinking of changing your name but not sure? Sure but overwhelmed by the name-change process? Unsure on how to get a marriage license? Wondering if your fiancé has ever been secretly married? Just kidding on the last one but online entrepreneur, Danielle Tate, has made almost anything possible with her trio of websites aiming to solve information and paperwork challenges facing soon-to-be newlyweds.

But Tate wasn’t always a wedding-red-tape buster. As a teenager in Bedford, Pennsylvania, she had planned to go into medicine after working summers at a local doctor’s office. She enrolled at McDaniel College in Maryland and studied biology and psychology. The decision to specialize in cardiology came her second year when she received a Howard Hughes grant to spend a summer working in Ohio State University Hospital’s cardiology department.

But a career in the medical field was not meant to be. She just missed the mark in the final interview round at Baylor College of Medical in Texas. “I was pretty disappointed but I refused to move back to small-town Pennsylvania so I took the first job opportunity that came my way, selling Canon copiers and fax machines,” Tate recalls. She did the job for about a year but applied in the meantime for more senior sales positions as well as a place at Johns Hopkins’ nursing program. (more…)

Julie Thorne Engels: Measuring Herself by Different Standards

Juliete Thorne EngelsWhen you look at the course of Julie Thorne Engels’ career, a few themes and success factors repeatedly pop up: passion for creativity, support from good female friends and family, a willingness to push through fear of failure, and a strong desire to champion women, especially in business. Optimistic and confident, Julie herself is curious and always open to change and improvement.

Never really traditional in her choices (at least compared to those of us outside California), the 45-year-old started out dreaming of being an entertainer. She studied film and video, waited tables, and performed Improv with a Chicago-based troupe for a few years before deciding she wanted to be behind the camera versus in front of it. Julie moved to Santa Monica to launch a career in the business side of the entertainment industry. She landed her first job as a runner and later an associate producer at Channel 1 News and eventually worked her way up to a producer on a show for Lifetime. Being exposed to the genesis of reality TV, Julie made a conscious decision to pursue a more personally rewarding path.  “I wanted to attach myself to something more inspirational and soulful … it was an important turning point for me, moving away from what many considered to be a stable career.”

So for a few years, Julie channeled her creative spirit by writing screenplays and teaching herself to paint. At the height of the dotcom boom, she launched her first start-up, Soulgarden. While the business ultimately didn’t take off, it taught her valuable lessons that would guide her future direction: “I was always networking, and I found the best feedback I was getting was from women my own age. All of my vital professional connections came from these women.”

This realization spurred Julie to start a women’s business group called iBettys, in honor of her close-knit group of high school friends who called each other “Betty.” It grew from a small group of 5 women initially to more than 100 (including men), meeting monthly to share ideas, provide feedback and encouragement to each other, as well as solid networking leads.

Julie continued to host iBettys meetings as she launched what became a very successful career at consumer marketing agency, The Regan Group. “I saw for the first time that my ideas could generate significant money. Very quickly I went from being an executor to new business development,” she recalls. This was a pivotal era for Julie as her work involved executive leadership, overseeing budgets, and team building and development. Patti Regan was a great mentor but equally Julie was a great investment, eventually tripling the agency billings and staff.

After nearly a decade, Julie couldn’t shake the notion that something powerful was going on with the iBetty gatherings. So with the confidence she garnered at The Regan Group, she decided to focus more time on championing the needs of women. Julie launched Bettyvision, a community empowering women to visualize their dreams and create goals to make them come true. A first workshop was followed by a second, third and so on … their success propelling her to invest more of her time and money into the concept.

In 2012, she left The Regan Group to work on transforming Bettyvision into a real venture. Her goal was to develop a tech platform to support vision boards (an Oprah favorite), which are essentially a collection of images to show what a woman wants to have happen in her life. “It’s like Pinterest with a purpose for women,” Julie explains.

She raised seed funding again mostly through family, which allowed her to build and launch her propriety vision board platform. Her expectations of the business were blown away after only a short time.  Julie recalls that she could have been better prepared but that her naivité of what lay ahead was beautifully inspired: “If I had really known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

The initial funding for Bettyvision was not enough to support the high growth technology play, and Julie all too quickly became aware of the discouraging reality that less than 10% venture funds go to women. It became increasingly challenging to raise the necessary capital to take it to the next level and attract advertising targeting millennial women.

But, Julie’s efforts were not in vain. Having pitched her platform to investors, corporations, women’s groups and brands over the course of the year and invested significantly in her technology platform, she was well poised to pivot to her next venture. She partnered with two women within her inner circle and launched Tribemint, a branding, digital communications and experiential marketing agency focusing on millennials. “I got to the point where I had no funds left. I had to figure out what I do really well, what I am passionate about. It kept coming back to the agency world. All my experience led me to this stage and being focused on helping brands and companies create meaningful conversations and deep relationships with this young, enthusiastic Gen Y tribe.”

Only a few months in, Tribemint is making a go of it. When asked how long she is giving herself to see the agency succeed, Julie is adamant: “I’m going to make it work. I am a female pioneer in the tech space and now need to fund future development – mine and that of others – which led me to this moment. I know how to make money in the agency world.”

While growing the business is of course her main focus, the end game is to build the Tribemint Fund  to support millennial entrepreneurship. “I have been fortunate to be surrounded by strong mentors, who have made a large impact on my entire life and career choices. Now, it is my turn to champion the younger generation and help them succeed. ”

A percentage of all Tribemint profits in the first years will go to the fund. “It was really hard not to see Bettyvision take off. My biggest passion takeaway was figuring out how I could turn this around. How I could raise more awareness about the lack of venture funding for women. The Tribemint Fund is my opportunity to make a difference and start being a woman who invests and writes checks to for-profit ventures.”

And if Julie’s chances of success are dependent on her drive, optimism, and spirit, there is no stopping her this time round.

Julie’s Tips for Success
  • If you are going into a new venture, create authentic business relationships.  Also, make a mutual investment with a millennial. They are hungry for experience and are a wellspring of inspiration, knowledge and fresh perspective.
  • Be clear and stand strong in your ultimate vision and “why” you started your business.   However, be prepared to be flexible in “how” you reach your end goals.  Knowing when to pivot is key to maintaining cash-flow, while on the path toward success.
  • It’s empowering to be in charge of your own destiny.  If you are going to make money, make it for yourself and then have the power to pay it forward.
  • Women have such a unique opportunity to leverage their feminine strengths in business: creativity, collaboration, flexibility, nurturance, and multi-tasking.  Since women have more “natural” milestones (such as having children), they are often faced with evaluating their different life-stages and recalibrating to stay on track with their career goals and vision.

Discussion

Julie Thorne Engels has learned from BettyVision that dreams are so personal. What is your dream and how do you plan to make it a reality?